Britain's leading animation directors tell Garrick Webster about the challenges of high-profile ad campaigns
"Our office is a bit like a cab office," says Alan Smith, one half of Smith & Foulkes, pointing out that the top half of one wall is a glass panel that allows them to look into a waiting area outside.
However, they don't send drunken revellers home from here, on the second floor at Nexus Productions. Instead, Smith & Foulkes dispatch some of the most creative commercials on TV. Often these ads aren't just taken down the road to be broadcast, but extend their journeys on to the world's biggest advertising awards ceremonies.
Their 2004 Honda Grrr commercial, which promoted the company's cleaner diesel engines, was the most awarded advert made between 1999 and 2008. It collected two D&AD Black Pencils, two Cannes Lions, including a Grand Prix, two Clios, and another 33 gongs at various international awards ceremonies. "Not every job is like that, not every script is like that," says Smith. "You could do an amazing job on an ad that gets onto TV for a week and then is forgotten about. It's just if things come together at the right time."
Smith & Foulkes got the job from Honda's UK agency, Wieden+Kennedy. "They had written a song already," explains Adam Foulkes. "So they came with that, which was quite good, and maybe a six-panel storyboard. A world of positive hate. We just went off for a couple of weeks and thought of some ideas."
Smith picks up the story: "They had this whole idea of dirty diesel engines that would be destroyed in a wave of positive hate. The idea was that we could form a narrative structure for how that would progress, and then set about designing that world. So we sent in all kinds of reference stuff about Augusta National Golf course, Liberace and Chinese propaganda."
Bollywood movies and the kaleidoscopic dance sequences shot by 1930s director Busby Berkeley also influenced the style. The pair set about creating test animations of a coughing, spluttering engine. While the song remained the same throughout, they came up with a stunning sequence full of craft and visual punch. The narrative depicted the rebirth of the diesel engine via floaty, nature-loving animation. Its beautifully crafted explosions of flowers, peacocks, dolphins, humming birds and an ornate glass dragonfly have doubtlessly inspired designers, illustrators and animators around the world.
"If every single commercial was like Honda Grrr then that would be the norm," says Smith. "It would almost be too much. You wouldn't know what it was all about. It has to sit in a world of fairly straightforward commercials to actually stand out."
Yet with their passion for animation and directing skills, Smith & Foulkes never seem to be the ones caught making straightforward commercials. Having directed as a team for the last 12 years, their curriculum vitae includes spots for Coke, Comcast, Motorola, Orange, Robinsons, the Department for Transport and Virgin Atlantic. On the big screen, they created the animated opening sequence for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events for Dreamworks. Their own short movie This Way Up was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year, and they are currently writing their own feature film.
Ironically, their collaborative process begins with individual brainstorming. "Initially, we just kind of have a little chat about it. We're always mulling things over, but we do go off to private spaces to just write our own little lists, just purely out of our own heads, which we then bring to the table and discuss before we go on to the stage of actually fitting everything together," explains Smith.
"In the same way, we go for a certain style as well," continues Foulkes. "We might just get some reference stuff together and say, 'I'm quite liking this there.' And if it goes down well we might pursue it."
There's no real division of responsibilities, but it's Smith who usually finds himself thinking more about the broader atmosphere of a piece, while Foulkes concentrates on characters and faces. When disagreements occur - and they do - each of them knows intuitively when to argue their point and when to concede. Sometimes it's just down to whichever of them feels most strongly about something. As Smith points out, it's a subjective business and often no idea is right or wrong. Most of the time, it's not a question of where the animation is heading in general. It's usually more a case of tweaking how a mountain looks, or changing somebody's chin.
"It actually comes down to smaller things than the direction the whole thing's going in," says Foulkes. "If we're down with someone who's animating a certain performance, one of us thinks it's one way, the other thinks it looks better the other. It's little things like that."
The pair joke around a lot, and like many creative duos, one often completes the other's sentences. When they're in their flow, the way they collaborate is based on evolving ideas and bouncing things back and forth rather than making hard and fast decisions. After all, when clients review the work there are bound to be changes.
The Smith & Foulkes creative process takes this into account. It's almost as though the client is part of the collaboration. "Coke Videogame - it's not our film," says Smith, using the 2006 ad as an example. "It's not exactly what we would have done for ourselves. We were doing a job for somebody, not just the agency but the client, the client's dog and beyond. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone pushes it into a place that they want. We've done jobs that we thought were really good and the client said, 'Well, it's not working hard for our market.' So we've had to change something to suit a request for something else. Everything is a compromise in every commercial job you do."
Coke Videogame premiered during the Superbowl in 2006 - the prime slot in the American advertising schedule. It depicted Grand Theft Auto-style action, but instead of going on a killing spree the main character opened a can of Coke and went on a rampage of love and kindness. This year Smith & Foulkes created another Coke advert for Wieden+Kennedy. Avatar also premiered during the Superbowl. But instead of a fully-animated commercial they dropped digital characters into a live-action backdrop shot in Buenos Aires.
"For us it was fantastic, because normally if you animate something like Videogame, you've got some streets, and you've got a bus and you make it come through the streets. You control all of that," says Smith. "Well, we were out on the streets of Buenos Aires with a bus full of people. It's the same toys, just much bigger. All the timing has to be the same. If it's not quite right you just get the bus to go a bit faster. It's exactly the same process."
"Framing shots, timing and everything is the same," agrees Foulkes. "The only problem was that it rained."
"Yeah, it rained. It doesn't tend to do that in 3D," Smith continues.
While they're not shy of live action, animation affords Smith & Foulkes a huge degree of control, and by their own admission they take full advantage of this. Although they have no interest in 3D software, they initiate the production process by creating an animatic in After Effects. The characters may just be cubes moving through very rough environments, but this gives the animators at Nexus an overall design for each scene. Just like at Pixar or Dreamworks, the details of the characters, settings, lighting and animation are built up in phases. Success for Smith & Foulkes depends on how well the pair guide the other creatives on the project.
"We get a bit pissed off sometimes at live-action directors who seem to be great collaborators because they get great performances out of actors," says Smith. "Basically, we get a performance out of animators. The characters on screen are animated, but you don't just press a button and there they are walking around - there's all the comic timing and everything. The design of them is a huge thing. We do actually spend most of our time with the animators who are crafting what we want in the scene."